One of the best, and most important, poets in the country — and an important influence on my own poetry writing — died July 7. Philip Dacey was my friend, my former teacher and, although I came late to writing poetry (or maybe because I came late to it) was someone who helped deepen my appreciation and understanding of it.
I am not the only one affected by Phil’s writing and guidance, nor by his death. One of the editors of the Stoneboat Literary Journal wrote a wonderful blog upon learning about Phil’s death. I share many of the blog’s sentiments.
Phil was a strong supporter of my writing, in direct and indirect ways. After close to three decades of writing for newspapers, I wrote my first group of full poems in 2008. They became the book Grace, and lo and behold, on the back cover was a long, complimentary blurb from Phil about the poems and the book. I had not sought it, nor expected it, but it blew me away to see it. I’d taken one poetry class from him years before at SMSU and written a couple stories about him, not enough to really build a relationship. So to see the blurb was really something. After that, we became closer friends, through e-mails, sharing poems, visiting at writing festivals, through a couple of letters I sent to the Smithsonian magazine questioning their manipulation of photos (especially one of Walt Whitman, which irked both Phil and me).
I was amazed and grateful that he was so generous with his time. He was a serious, big-time poet — friend of the Pulitzer-winner Stephen Dunn, acquaintance of Allen Ginsberg, Eugene McCarthy, Daniel Ellsberg, co-editor of one of the standard college poetry textbooks. Yet, he made time for me, telling me what he’d liked about a poem I had published, accepting my responses to his poems with grace and generosity, as if I were a major editor from a major publishing house. I’d get frustrated, like the writer of the Stoneboat blog, when a submission of mine was turned down. Phil would write to me and say, “don’t worry, I still get rejection letters, too.” I could never believe it: someone of Phil’s talent and stature getting turned down? My first question was often, what kind of dumbbell editor said no to something Phil submitted. But he’d explain more about the process, about how poems have to fit what editors want for a publication and sometimes, even if they’re very good, they don’t fit. So, you move on, submit somewhere else.
Over the last two years, Phil and I continued to write e-mails often, but they became as much about health issues as poetry. When his acute leukemia first struck, he and his partner Alixa went through some nightmarish moments. Some difficult, grueling treatments. My mother has terminal cancer, too, yet she’s been able to respond remarkably well to the various treatments she’s been given — far outliving her original prognosis. Phil would often write, asking for updates on my mother, saying her survival was one of the inspirations for his own battle. Another inspiration, interestingly, was the construction of the new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings football team. When Phil was in the hospital for chemo or blood transfusions, he could often see work progressing on the stadium. It became a metaphor for him. Just as doctors had to tear him down — get rid of all the bad blood cells, all the cancer cells — so they could rebuild him with new blood cells, new bone marrow cells, the same thing was going on outside his hospital window. The old Metrodome was torn down, making way for the new stadium, which was built up and out as he looked on.
He was, he said, going to be like that new stadium. And for a time he was. Remarkably, he prevailed in his first round against the leukemia. He took such good care of himself, running, bicycling, eating well, that doctors said he had the body of a 60-year-old, not a 75-year-old, and it helped him push back the leukemia. He wrote more, he gave more readings, he kept encouraging other poets. He was really happy when his former colleague, Susan McLean, gained national and international acclaim last year for two new books of poetry. Phil had encouraged Susan’s efforts to re-engage in writing poetry, especially formal verse. Susan does it very well now.
Then, of course, the cancer came back. Dammit. And we lost Phil on July 7. I’d gone to visit him just after he had entered hospice care this spring. It was a rainy day near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis, and Phil’s voice was hoarse. But he was lively, curious, full of questions and genuine care about my own work and my family. Then we turned to his work, his family. He was surprised and humbled, he said, by the amount of fan mail and e-mails he’d been receiving, notes of encouragement and support from people he knew and many he’d maybe met once or twice or not at all. Well, I said, don’t be surprised: you’re a writer and a teacher. You’ve reached a lot of people, even those you don’t know. And he had.
He also talked about dying. He was not afraid, but rather wanted to die well, set a good example of dying while still embracing life. That meant pulling the circles of his life closer, not worrying about the distractions or frustrations of the larger world, but living more fully with those closest to him — which meant his family. He loved Alixa, and was very proud of his children, as his poems have often revealed. He felt comfortable dying, knowing they had all grown into successful, confident people who wouldn’t go through their lives needing his help. He wasn’t worried, he said, that he’d get a 2 a.m. phone call from jail, asking to bail one of them out. No, no worries about that at all, which made it easier to let go.
In our conversation, as he talked about his sons and daughter he cupped two of his fingers together, bouncing them in the air to match his words as he counted their latest achievements and moves to new places. In a way, the gesture looked as if he was giving a blessing or benediction to his children’s lives.
As I left that day, he gave me four books — and would have given me more — insisting I pull some from his bookshelves. He found a grocery bag for me to carry them in, protecting them from the rain. I thought about what he had said about his children. Maybe it applies to the rest of us who knew him, too. We don’t have to call him at 2 a.m., nor do we have to e-mail him with a question or about his latest published poem. But what if we wanted to? It’s been a week and a half now, and I’ve gotten no new e-mails from Phil, nor sent any to him. Yesterday, I read something about the late poet John Berryman, who had taught at the University of Minnesota years ago. It was something I normally might have shared with Phil. Instead, I circled the paragraphs in the magazine I was reading, set down my pen, and placed the magazine back in the rack next to my chair. The cover closed, the story somewhere inside. I suppose I’ll leave it that way